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Barnstaple (Devon, UK), Clock Tower -- 2013 -- 0986.jpg
Barnstaple Clock Tower
Barnstaple is located in Devon
Population 24,033 
OS grid reference SS5633
Civil parish
  • Barnstaple
  • North Devon
Shire county
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district EX31, EX32
Dialling code 01271
Police Devon and Cornwall
Fire Devon and Somerset
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
UK Parliament
  • North Devon
List of places
51°05′N 4°04′W / 51.08°N 4.06°W / 51.08; -4.06

Barnstaple is a river-port town in North Devon, England, at the River Taw's lowest crossing point before the Bristol Channel. From the 14th century, it was licensed to export wool and won great wealth. Later it imported Irish wool, but its harbour silted up and other trades developed such as shipbuilding, foundries and sawmills. A Victorian market building survives, with a high glass and timber roof on iron columns. The parish population was 24,033 at the 2011 census, and that of the built-up area 32,411 in 2018. The town area with nearby settlements such as Bishop's Tawton, Fremington and Landkey, had a 2020 population of 46,619.


The old spelling Barnstable is now obsolete, but is retained by an American county and town and is still sometimes used for Bideford or Barnstable Bay. The name is first recorded in the 10th century and is believed to derive from the Old English bearde, meaning "battle-axe", and stapol, meaning "pillar", referring to a post or pillar set up to mark a religious or administrative meeting place. The belief that the name derives from staple meaning "market", indicating that there was a market here from the foundation of the settlement, is incorrect, because the use of staple in that sense is not recorded in England before 1423.

Barnstaple was formerly referred to as "Barum", from a contraction of the Latin form of the name (ad Barnastapolitum) in Latin documents such as the episcopal registers of the Diocese of Exeter. Barum was mentioned by Shakespeare, and the name was revived and popularised in Victorian times, when it featured in several contemporary novels. The name Barum is retained in the names of a football team, brewery, and of several local businesses. The former Brannam Pottery works which was sited in Litchdon Street was known for its trademark "Barum" etched on the base of its products.


The earliest settlement in the area was probably at Pilton on the bank of the River Yeo, now a northern suburb of the present town. Pilton is recorded in the Burghal Hidage (c. 917) as a burh founded by Alfred the Great, and it may have been the site of a Viking attack in 893, but by the later 10th century Barnstaple had taken over its role of local defence. Barnstaple had its own mint before the Norman Conquest.

Barnstaple Pannier Marker Exterior
The exterior of the Pannier Market

The large feudal barony of Barnstaple had its caput at Barnstaple Castle. It was granted by William the Conqueror to Geoffrey de Montbray, who is recorded as its holder in Domesday Book. The barony escheated to the crown in 1095 after Montbray had rebelled against King William II. William re-granted the barony to Juhel de Totnes, formerly feudal baron of Totnes. In about 1107, Juhel, who had already founded Totnes Priory, founded Barnstaple Priory, of the Cluniac order, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. After Juhel's son died without children, the barony was split into two, passing through the de Braose and Tracy families, before being reunited under Henry de Tracy. It then passed through several other families, before ending up in the ownership of Margaret Beaufort (died 1509), mother of king Henry VII. See Feudal barony of Barnstaple for full details.

In the 1340s the merchants of the town claimed that the rights of a free borough had been granted to them by King Athelstan in a lost charter. Although this was challenged from time to time by subsequent lords of the manor, it still allowed the merchants an unusual degree of self-government. The town's wealth in the Middle Ages was founded on its being a staple port licensed to export wool. It had an early merchant guild, known as the Guild of St. Nicholas. In the early 14th century it was the third richest town in Devon, behind Exeter and Plymouth, and it was the largest textile centre outside Exeter until about 1600. Its wool trade was further aided by the town's port, from which in 1588 five ships were contributed to the force sent to fight the Spanish Armada. Barnstaple was one of the "privileged ports" of the Spanish Company, (established 1577) whose armorials are visible on two of the mural monuments to 17th century merchants in St Peter's Church, and on the decorated plaster ceiling of the former "Golden Lion Inn", 62 Boutport Street (now a restaurant next to the Royal and Fortescue Hotel). The developing trade with America in the 16th and 17th centuries greatly benefited the town. The wealthy merchants that this trade created built impressive town houses, some of which survive behind more recent frontages—they include No. 62 Boutport Street, said to have one of the best plaster ceilings in Devon. The merchants also built several almshouses, and they ensured they would be remembered by installing elaborate monuments to their families in the church.

By the 18th century, Barnstaple had ceased to be a woollen manufacturing town, but this business was replaced by the import of Irish wool and yarn, for which it was the main landing place; the raw materials were carried by land to the new clothmaking towns in mid- and east Devon, such as Tiverton and Honiton. However, the harbour was gradually silting up—as early as c. 1630 Tristram Risdon reported that "it hardly beareth small vessels"—and Bideford, which is lower down the estuary and benefits from the scouring action of the fast flowing River Torridge, gradually took over the foreign trade.

Although for a time between 1680 and 1730, Barnstaple's trade was surpassed by Bideford's, it retained its economic importance until the early 20th century, when it was manufacturing lace, gloves, sail-cloth and fishing-nets, it had extensive potteries, tanneries, sawmills and foundries, and shipbuilding was also carried on.

Barnstaple was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act 1835. Between the 1930s and the 1950s the town swallowed the villages of Pilton, Newport, and Roundswell through ribbon development.

Barnstaple Clock Tower 281008
Barnstaple Clock Tower, erected in 1862 as a memorial to Prince Albert


Barnstaple is the main town of North Devon and claims to be the oldest borough in the United Kingdom. It lies 68 miles (109 km) west-south-west of Bristol, 50 miles (80 km) north of Plymouth and 34 miles (55 km) northwest of the county town and city of Exeter. It was founded at the lowest crossing point of the River Taw, where its estuary starts to widen, about 7 miles (11 km) inland from Barnstaple Bay (or Bideford Bay) in the Bristol Channel. On the north side of the town, the River Taw is joined by the River Yeo, which rises on Berry Down, near Combe Martin.

The greater part of the town lies on the eastern bank of the estuary, connected to the western side by the ancient Barnstaple Long Bridge which has 16 arches. The early medieval layout of the town is still apparent from the street plan and street names, with Boutport Street ("About the Port") following the curved line of the ditch outside the town walls. The area of medieval shipbuilding and repair is still called The Strand, the Old English word for shore.


Barnstaple has cool, wet winters and mild, wet summers. Temperatures range from 9 C (48 F) in January to 21 C (70 F) in July. October is the wettest month with 103 mm (4.1 in) of rain. The record high is 34 C (94 F), and the record low is −9 C (16 F). Barnstaple gets 862 mm (33.9 in) of rain per year, with rain on 138 days.

Climate data for Barnstaple, United Kingdom
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 16
Average high °C (°F) 9
Average low °C (°F) 4
Record low °C (°F) -6
Rainfall mm (inches) 75
Humidity 83 82 80 77 76 78 79 79 79 81 83 83 80
Avg. rainy days 15 10 12 10 11 9 9 10 11 13 14 14 138
Source #1: Weather2
Source #2:


Barnstaple parish population in the 1801 census was 3,748, in 1901 9,698, and in 2001 22,497.

In 2011 the racial make-up was:

  • White British 93.9%
  • White Irish 0.3%
  • Other White 2.6%
  • Mixed race 1.2%
  • Asian 1.6%
  • Black 0.3%
  • Other 0.1%

As a major town, Barnstaple has a similar ethnic make-up to other south-west towns such as Truro and Cullompton. It is more diverse than the North Devon district (95.9% White British) and Devon as a whole (94.2% White British).

Twin towns and sister cities

Barnstaple is twinned with:


Queen Anne's Walk, Barnstaple - - 275649
Queen Anne's Walk, formerly the Mercantile Exchange, c. 1708, with the town's main quay to the left. The statue of Queen Anne was given in 1708 by Robert Rolle (died 1710), MP, of Stevenstone

Barnstaple has an eclectic mix of architectural style with the 19th century probably now predominant. There are some remnants of early buildings to enjoy as well as several early plaster ceilings. St. Anne's Chapel in the central churchyard is probably the best of the ancient buildings to survive. Queen Anne's Walk was erected c. 1708 as a mercantile exchange. The Georgian Guildhall is also of interest as well as the Pannier Market beneath. The museum has an "arts and crafts" vibe with its tessellated floors, locally made staircase and decorative fireplaces.

Barnstaple Castle

Barnstaple Castle Mound
Barnstaple Castle Mound, 11th century, now next to the public library and car park

A wooden castle was built by Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances in the 11th century, clearing houses to make room for it. Juhel of Totnes later occupied the castle and founded Barnstaple Priory just outside its walls. The castle's first stone buildings were probably erected by Henry de Tracey, a strong supporter of King Stephen. In 1228, the Sheriff of Devon ordered the walls of the castle to be reduced to a height of 10 feet (3 m). By the time of the death of the last Henry de Tracey in 1274, the castle was beginning to decay. The fabric of the castle was used in the construction of other buildings and by 1326 the castle was a ruin. The remaining walls blew down in a storm in 1601. Today only the tree covered motte remains.

St Anne's Chapel

St Anne's Chapel was restored in 2012. It was an ancient chantry chapel, the assets of which were acquired by the Mayor of Barnstaple and others in 1585, some time after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The deed of feoffment dated 1 November 1585 exists in the George Grant Francis collection in Cardiff.

The Pannier Market and Butchers' Row

The interior of the Pannier Market
Butchers' Row, looking eastwards, with the side of the Pannier Market, left

Barnstaple has been the major market for North Devon since Saxon times. Demands for health regulation of its food market in Victorian times saw the construction in 1855 to 1856 of the town's Pannier Market, originally known as the Vegetable Market and designed by R. D. Gould. The building has a high glass and timber roof on iron columns. At 107 yards (98 m) long, it runs the length of Butchers' Row. Market days are Monday – Crafts and General (April to December), Tuesday – General and Produce (all year), Wednesday – Arts Collectables and Books (all year), Thursday – Crafts and General (all year), Friday – General and Produce (all year), and Saturday – General and Produce (all year).

Built on the other side of the street at the same time as the Pannier Market, Butchers' Row consists of ten shops with pilasters of Bath Stone, and wrought iron supports to an overhanging roof. Only one of the shops remain as a butcher, although the new shops still sell local agricultural goods. There is one baker, one delicatessen, two fishmongers, a florist and a greengrocer.


National Trust Owned by the National Trust
English Heritage Owned by English Heritage
Forestry Commission Owned by the Forestry Commission
Country Park A Country Park
Accessible open space An Accessible open space
Museum (free) Museum (free)
Museum Museum (charges entry fee)
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House

In Barnstaple

  • Museum (free) Museum of Barnstaple & North Devon
  • Drama-icon.svg Queen's Theatre
  • Businesses and Markets
  • Barnstaple Town F.C.

Around Barnstaple

  • UKAL icon.svg Tarka Trail – The cycling and walking trails were established by Devon County Council, to celebrate Henry Williamson's 1927 novel Tarka the Otter. The book depicts Tarka's adventure travelling through North Devon's countryside.
  • NTE icon.svg Arlington Court, 8 miles (13 km)
  • NTE icon.svg Lundy Island | Ferry sails from Bideford, 10 miles (16 km)
  • NTE icon.svg Watersmeet House 20 miles (32 km)
  • UKAL icon.svg The South West Coast Path National Trail runs through the town, and gives access to walks along the spectacular North Devon coast.
  • HR icon.svg Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, 15 miles (24 km)


Barnstaple Long Bridge

In 1989, the A361 North Devon Link Road was built between Barnstaple and the M5 motorway, some 40 miles (65 km) to the east. Traffic congestion in the town was severe, but in May 2007, the Barnstaple Western Bypass was opened to take traffic towards Braunton and Ilfracombe away from the town centre and ancient bridge. It consists of 1.6 miles (2.6 km) of new road and a 447 yards (409 m) long, five-span bridge, and was expected to have cost £42 million. The town's main square was remodelled as the entrance to the town centre, and The Strand was closed to traffic. The A39, the Atlantic Highway, follows after the A361 to Bideford and to Bude and then further towards Cornwall.

Most of Barnstaple's bus network is run by Stagecoach South West & Filers. The main bus station is at the junction of Queen Street and Belle Meadow Drive.

Main bus services:

  • 19 roundswell – Barnstaple bus station- North Devon Hospital
  • 21 Westward Ho! – Bideford – Fremington – Barnstaple – Braunton – West Meadow Road/Ilfracombe
  • 21A Appledore – Bideford – Fremington – Barnstaple – Braunton – West Meadow Road/ georgeham
  • 71 Barnstaple – Torrington – (Holsworthy)/Shebbear
  • 155 Barnstaple – South Molton – Tiverton – Exeter
  • 301 Barnstaple – Ilfracombe – Combe Martin
  • 309/310 Barnstaple – Lynton – Lynmouth

National Express has coach services to London, Heathrow Airport, Taunton, Bristol and Birmingham.

The nearest airport is Exeter Airport.


A map of Barnstaple from 1937, showing the railway lines.

Barnstaple railway station is the terminus of a branch line from Exeter known as the Tarka Line after a local connection with Tarka the Otter. The station is near the end of the Long Bridge, on the opposite bank of the Taw to the town centre. Several other stations closed with the publication of the Reshaping of British Railways (the Beeching Axe) report in the 1960s. The surviving one had been opened on 1 August 1854 by the North Devon Railway (later the London and South Western Railway), although a service had operated from Fremington since 1848 for goods traffic only. The station became "Barnstaple Junction" on 20 July 1874, when the railway opened the branch line to Ilfracombe, reverting to plain "Barnstaple" when this was closed on 5 October 1970. It is now a terminus and much reduced in size, as part of the site has been used for the Barnstaple Western Bypass.

Ilfracombe Branchline in the late 1960s.

The Ilfracombe branch line brought the railway across the river into the town centre. Barnstaple Quay was situated close by the Castle Mound. It closed in 1898 in favour of a nearby Barnstaple Town station at North Walk, which was also the terminus of the narrow-gauge Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, until that closed in 1935. The narrow-gauge line's main operating centre was at nearby Pilton.

A separate Barnstaple station, renamed Barnstaple (Victoria Road) in 1949, was opened to the east of the town in 1873 as the terminus of the Devon and Somerset Railway and later part of the Great Western Railway. A junction was provided to allow trains access to Barnstaple Junction and these ran through to Ilfracombe. It was closed in 1970.

Religious sites

St. Peters church on Paternoster Row - - 1658349
St Peter's church with its broach spire

St Peter's Church is the parish church of Barnstaple. Its oldest parts probably date to the 13th century, though the nave, chancel and tower date from 1318, when three altars were dedicated by Bishop Stapledon. The north and south aisles were added in c. 1670. The church has a notable broach spire, claimed by W. G. Hoskins to be the best of its kind in the country. Inside the church are many mural monuments to 17th-century merchants, such as Raleigh Clapham (died 1636), George Peard (died 1644) and Thomas Horwood (died 1658), reflecting the prosperity of the town at that time. The interior of the church was heavily restored by George Gilbert Scott from 1866, and then by his son John Oldrid Scott into the 1880s, leaving it "dark and dull", according to Hoskins.

Other religious buildings in the town include St Anne's Chapel (a 14th-century chantry chapel, now a museum) in the parish churchyard; Holy Trinity, built in the 1840s but necessarily rebuilt in 1867 as its foundations were unsound—it has a fine tower in the Somerset style; the Roman Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception, said to have been built to designs supplied by Pugin, in Romanesque Revival style; and a Baptist chapel of 1870 which includes a lecture hall and classrooms.


North Devon is some distance from Britain's traditional areas of industrial activity and population. In the late 1970s it gained several industrial firms due to the availability of central government grants for opening factories and operating them on low or zero levels of local taxation. This was scarcely successful, with few lasting beyond the few years that grants were available. One success was the manufacturing of generic medicines by Cox Pharmaceuticals (now branded Allergan), which moved in 1980 from a site in Brighton, Sussex. A lasting effect on the town has been the development and expansion of industrial estates at Seven Brethren, Whiddon Valley and Pottington.

Whilst the 1989 opening of the improved A361 connection to the motorway network assisted trade in ways such as weekend tourism, it was detrimental to some distribution businesses. These had previously seen the town as a base for local distribution, a need removed when travelling time to the M5 motorway was roughly halved.

With Barnstaple as the main shopping area for North Devon, retail work contributes to the economy. There are chain stores in the town centre and in the Roundswell Business Park, on the western fringe of the town. They include Tesco, with a hypermarket and superstore, and Sainsbury's Lidl and Asda supermarkets. Multi-million pound redevelopment round the former Leaderflush Shapland works at Anchorwood Bank is creating a conservation area near the River Taw, hundreds of new homes, a retail area of shops, restaurants and leisure facilities. Asda also runs a petrol filling station.

By far the largest employer in the region is local and central government, particularly the Royal Marines Base Chivenor, 3 miles (5 km) west of the town, and North Devon District Hospital, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north.

In 2005 unemployment in North Devon was 1.8–2.4 per cent, while median per capita wage for North Devon was 73 per cent of the UK national average. The level of work in the informal or casual sector is high, partly during seasonal tourism. By 2018 unemployment in North Devon had fallen from a 2010 high to 1.2 per cent, while median weekly full-time pay stood at £440 per week and average housing prices at £230,000. The number of businesses registered has risen by 370 since 2010 to 4,895. The year 2018 also saw government investment through Coastal Community grants and Housing Infrastructure funds £83 million to upgrade the North Devon Link Road.


Cricket is played at Barnstaple and Pilton.

The association football club Barnstaple Town F.C. has been based at Mill Road since 1904 and plays in the Western Football League.

Rugby union is played at Barnstaple Rugby Football Club, whose first team plays in South West Premier, which is a fifth-tier league in the English rugby union system.

Several sports are available at North Devon Leisure Centre, the home of Barnstaple Squash Club.

There are numerous bowling greens and tennis courts, including those at the Tarka Tennis Centre, which has six indoor courts and hosts the Aegon GB Pro-Series Barnstaple.

In February 2010 a Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing Club was established, bringing the sport to Castle Quay in the centre of Barnstaple.

Hockey is played at Taw Valley Ladies Hockey Club (along with a Junior set-up) and at North Devon Men's Hockey Club, both at Park School.


There are selected primary and secondary state schools and a tertiary college in Barnstaple.

In 2012, 58 per cent of Devon students achieved 5 GCSEs grade A* to C. The UK average is 59 per cent.

Percentage of students achieving 5 GCSEs grade A*to C
School Name Type 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
The Park Community School State 38% 44% 45% 47% 54%
Pilton Community College State 47% 51% 50% 53% 49%

Petroc (formerly North Devon College) is a tertiary college offering a wide range of vocational and academic further education to more than 3,000 young people over 16. It was due to spend £100 million on a new campus to be opened on Seven Brethren in 2011, but this fell through when the Learning and Skills Council withdrew £75 million in funding in January 2009. Petroc was launched in September 2009, a year after NDC merged with Tiverton's East Devon College.

Notable people

The following people have a connection with the town, in birth order:

  • Henry de Bracton (c. 1210 – c. 1258), cleric and jurist, was appointed Archdeacon of Barnstaple in 1264.
  • Robert Carey (1515–1586), landowner, became Barnstaple MP in 1553, Sheriff of Devon in 1555–1556 and Recorder of Barnstaple from 1560.
  • Richard Ferris (died 1649), merchant and MP for Barnstaple from 1640, founded Barnstaple Grammar School.
  • Pentecost Dodderidge (died c. 1650), was elected MP for Barnstaple in 1621, 1624 and 1625.
  • Richard Callicott (1604–1686), born in Barnstaple, was a leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • John Dodderidge (1610–1659), was elected MP for Barnstaple in 1646 and 1652.
  • John Loosemore (1618–1681), born in Barnstaple, was a noted builder of pipe organs, including the one in Exeter Cathedral.
  • John Gay (1685–1732), poet and dramatist
  • James Parsons (1705–1770), physician, antiquary and prolific medical author born in Barnstaple
  • Graham Gore (c. 1809 – c. 1847), naval officer and polar explorer lost during the Franklin Expedition
  • Henry Fry (1826–1892), born in Barnstaple, was a politician and merchant in British Columbia.
  • William Hoyle (1842–1918), born in Barnstaple, became a politician and furniture maker in Ontario.
  • Francis Carruthers Gould (1844–1925), caricaturist and cartoonist, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Fred M. White (1859–1935), author of science-fiction and disaster novels, spent his old age in Barnstaple and set three of his novels there.
  • Hubert Bath (1883–1945), born in Barnstaple, composed musical scores for many films in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Francis Chichester (1901–1972), pioneering aviator and solo sailor
  • George Hart (1902–1987), first-class cricketer with Middlesex, died in Barnstaple
  • Stafford Somerfield (1911–1995), News of the World editor, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Brian Thomas (1912–1989), an artist best known for church paintings, born in Barnstaple
  • Racey Helps (1913–1970), children's writer and illustrator, lived in the town from 1962 until his death.
  • Jeremy Thorpe (1929–2014), Liberal Party leader, sat as MP for North Devon constituency centred on Barnstaple in 1959–1978.
  • Nigel Brooks (born 1936), musical composer and conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra.
  • Johnny Kingdom (1939–2018), wildlife film-maker and photographer
  • John Keay (born 1941), historian and radio presenter born in Barnstaple
  • Richard Eyre (born 1943), a film, theatre, television and opera director, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Snowy White (born 1948), English guitarist known for having played with rock group Thin Lizzy, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Tim Wonnacott (born 1951), antiques expert and television presenter
  • David Spiegelhalter (born 1953), statistician
  • Dermot Murnaghan (born 1957), Sky News television broadcaster, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Anne-Marie Dawe (born 1968), born in Barnstaple, became the RAF's first fully qualified female navigator in 1991.
  • Tim Montgomerie (born 1970), political activist, blogger and columnist
  • Katie Hopkins (born 1975), columnist, was born in Barnstaple.
  • Phil Vickery (born 1976), rugby player and former England captain
  • Stuart Brennan (born 1982), BAFTA winning actor
  • George Friend (born 1987), professional footballer born in Barnstaple
  • Andy King (born 1988), professional footballer born in Barnstaple
  • Ian King, journalist and presenter on Sky News

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